Panthers grab slim edge in very wild East wild-card race

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Florida Panthers goaltender Alex Lyon (34) stops the puck during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Michael Laughlin)

SUNRISE, Fla. – Alex Lyon’s goaltending resume is no joke.

The 30-year-old who has spent the majority of his pro career in the minors owns no fewer than seven records at Yale, where he’s the all-time wins leader. He had a shutout to clinch the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup championship last season for the Chicago Wolves. He once stopped 94 of 95 shots to win a five-overtime AHL playoff game.

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And over the last week, he may have helped save the Florida Panthers’ season.

They play the soundtrack to “The Lion King” in the Panthers’ dressing room after wins these days — a nod to Lyon, who has gone 4-0-0 with starting netminder Sergei Bobrovsky sidelined by illness. The latest victory came Tuesday when Lyon stopped 39 shots and Florida beat Buffalo 2-1 to move atop the super-tight Eastern Conference wild-card standings.

“I don’t want to say it was playoff hockey,” Lyon said. “But it felt more towards that direction.”

Florida has jumped from being outside the playoff picture to controlling its own destiny in these last four games — somehow, the first four-game winning streak all season for a club that had the NHL’s best regular-season record a year ago.

The Panthers, right now, hold the first wild-card spot in the East with 87 points. The New York Islanders also have 87 points and would be behind Florida in a tiebreaker, but still hold the second of the conference's two wild-card berths. Pittsburgh is now on the outside, its 5-1 loss to New Jersey on Tuesday leaving the Penguins stuck on 86 points.

Florida, the Islanders and Pittsburgh all have four games left. Other teams are still alive, but need a series of miracles to grab one of the last two berths. Florida’s odds didn’t look great a week ago when the Panthers had lost four in a row; winning four in a row since won’t cause the team to relax, coach Paul Maurice said.

“There’s not enough separation,” Maurice said. “We’re running neck-and-neck is the way it feels. We don’t have a lead here. We’re just at the finish line, full-on sprint, as hard as you can. Feels like we’re running alongside each and the push will come right to the end.”

Florida is home for Ottawa on Thursday, at Washington on Saturday, then home for games Monday against Toronto and April 13 against Carolina. Ottawa is alive more in the mathematical sense than anything else, Washington has been eliminated and by next week Toronto and Carolina could be locked into their playoff seeding.

The Islanders host Tampa Bay on Thursday, Philadelphia on Saturday, go to Washington on Monday and close April 12 at home against Montreal. It’s not exactly daunting: Tampa Bay knows it’ll be playing Toronto in Round 1, and everyone else on the Isles’ slate of remaining games is soon to be on vacation.

Pittsburgh plays host to Minnesota on Thursday, goes to Detroit on Saturday, hosts Chicago on April 11 and finishes at Columbus on April 13. Again, not exactly a rugged stretch.

“We’ve got some important games coming up,” Penguins star Sidney Crosby said Tuesday night.

That they do. So does Florida. So do the Islanders. The only certainty is if the Panthers and Islanders both go 4-0-0 the rest of the way, the Penguins can’t catch them. Any slip-ups by either of those clubs opens the door nice and wide for Pittsburgh again.

It’ll be a frantic final few days in the East. And Florida, which spent much of this season outside the playoff picture, now has a chance again thanks in large part to a goalie who had seven wins — combined — over his first five NHL seasons and only three this season for the Panthers before this four-game run.

“Can’t really change your approach,” Lyon said. “Can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Just keep going.”


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